February 26, 2023 Hamilton Coe Throckmorton
Matthew 4:1-11 The Federated Church, UCC
When I was a child, I would guess that the thing I most wanted from God was a shiny red bicycle. I remember pining for what would have been my heart’s desire. What a spectacular demonstration of God’s unfathomably great powers that would have been!
Over the years that sort of prayer has morphed into a thousand other shapes. I’ve prayed for the Cavs and Guardians to win their respective league championships. (I’ve known better than to pray the same thing for the Browns—even God apparently has limits!) And more seriously, I’ve begged that a little girl with leukemia in my last church would be healed. I’ve implored the Holy One that a family whose son and brother was electrocuted at college would hear that the report had been false. I’ve hoped that God would inspire the people of any church I’ve been in to offer their gifts of time and ability and money generously. I’ve prayed for mass shootings to cease, for the war in Ukraine to stop, for racist madness to come to an end, for people to stop being mean to each other. On a selfish level, I’ve prayed that an illness making the rounds would bypass me, that a foul mood might lift, that a person treating me badly would simply stop it.
Though you might tell me otherwise, I suspect I’m not alone in this. Most of us, at least occasionally, and maybe often, want God to do what we think needs to be done. If I had to guess, I think the single most enduring complaint I’ve heard about God over the years of my ministry is: Why doesn’t God do something? People are shooting each other more and more often; why doesn’t God stop it? People are being slaughtered in Ukraine; why doesn’t God say, “No more”? And likely the most heart-rending of all: children get sick and die; why doesn’t God heal them and make them well? Over and over again, people of faith implore God to step up and do the right thing. And if God doesn’t come through, then doubt and disbelief and anger may take over and maybe we just take a step back from the God who seems so callous and unconcerned, even feeble. Why would anyone worship a God who’s apparently that ineffectual and weak? ‘I give up,’ think many. ‘A God who seems to be that heartless and cruel is not a God I want anything to do with, and certainly not one I would worship.’
And who can blame them? Isn’t the very first characteristic we think of about God power? God means omnipotence, right? Zeus, Thor, Poseidon, Ares, Hercules, Loki, Odin, Nike—meaning “victory”: all these gods of ancient and contemporary mythology are gods who triumph. They’re gods who get things done. They’re gods you want on your side when the going gets tough. To be a god is to be powerful.
Or so we suppose. Because along comes Jesus, and everything we think we know about gods is thrown up the air. As Matthew tells the story, at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, immediately after he’s been baptized, Jesus is “taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test.” (4:1, The Message). It’s these forty days and forty nights that are going to say who Jesus is. This intense testing is going to tell us what Jesus is all about.
And then come three tests, or temptations, as we usually call them. When we think of temptation, we usually think of chocolate or alcohol or sex. The temptations Jesus faces, though, are of an entirely different order. In fact, they’re all essentially variations on a single theme. And strangely, they’re all actually good things to which Jesus is tempted. In a hungry world, what could possibly be wrong with turning stones to bread? Of course if Jesus had the chance to do that he would, right? Or what could possibly be wrong with wanting to know that God will protect us if we fall? Wouldn’t any God worth their salt ensure our safety? Or what could possibly be wrong with Jesus, of all people, taking control of the world? Who better to be in charge, to rule over all nations, than Jesus, the embodiment of good?
These are good things the devil goads Jesus to do, right? So what’s the problem? The problem, in a nutshell, is that Jesus knows that, as good as any of these things may seem on the surface, they would be an insidious diversion from Jesus’ deepest identity.
As much as we might pray for a world in which earthquakes don’t kill people, in which violence is squelched, in which there is no grotesque disease or premature death, and as much as we might think that’s precisely God’s role in our world—to get rid of those things—today’s story points us in another direction entirely. Jesus is not the great problem-solver, not the manipulator par excellence, not the one who makes everything turn out right. Jesus is instead the one who turns to God, the one who finds in God the center and soul of life.
In a world in which problem-solving is customarily venerated, this refusal of Jesus to do these really good things seems to many of us mostly to be a kind of sacrilege. What good could it possibly do to turn to an apparently impotent God when people blow each other’s brains out, when tsunamis wipe whole cities off the map, when children get sick and die? Turning to an apparently ineffectual God in the face of so much that cries out to be done is just nonsense, isn’t it?
Perhaps. But maybe, just maybe, Jesus is onto something here. Maybe life isn’t about making everything right. Maybe it’s first and foremost about trusting in One greater than ourselves. Maybe life isn’t about solving every problem. Maybe it’s about realizing that, in life and in death, we belong to God, who is “Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:9). Maybe life isn’t about engineering perfection. Maybe it’s about attuning ourselves to the Deep Center who is all in all.
I know what you may be thinking: what good is that? I’ve thought it myself. What good is it to worship God when accidents are happening, when wars are being fought, when people are dying? I get it, I do.
And at the same time I know that the meaning of life can never be in just whether every problem is solved and every conundrum is made right. The truth is that not every problem is ever going to be solved, not every pain is going to be erased. And if it were, if life were thoroughly sanitized of all threat and anguish, the inevitable by-product would be that all our freedom had been taken away. We wouldn’t be able to make choices because all of life would be engineered so that it was like some utopia. “Utopia,” as you may know, means literally “no place.” There is no place, and there couldn’t possibly be any place, that was as supposedly perfect as that without losing all of what gives life its gift and its magnificence.
So the painful and glorious truth is that we’re stuck with a world in which agony and splendor mix, in which sadness and joy intermingle, in which death and life are intimately and unavoidably tied together. And despite our fierce sorrow when things don’t go as we had hoped, would we really want it any other way? Would happiness and satisfaction mean anything at all if there weren’t also grief and frustration? Would there be any such thing as success if there weren’t also failure?
And what Jesus does in the temptation story is say, essentially, that since we’re stuck with the beautiful anguish of life, what will make it bearable and finally gorgeous is living in sync with the Creator. What will make it tolerable and even sublime is finding our ground, our roots, in the One who is always on our pulse, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), the One in whom we’re able to find beauty and hope even when everything falls apart. What Jesus is telling us, at the heart of it all, is that there’s a “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:6), and that that peace is available to us whether disaster makes everything crumble or magnificence makes every moment twinkle.
And to worship that God is to give up any notion that God will right all wrongs. It was the Rev. William Sloane Coffin who said that God provides “minimum protection and maximum support.” In other words, God doesn’t guard us from the terrors of life. God doesn’t stop them from happening. Instead, God walks with us through those terrors: minimum protection and maximum support.
Another way to frame this is some words I’ve quoted before, but they’re so important to me, and I believe to us, that I’m going to say them again. Shortly after 9/11, in the wake of the terrorism that had felled the towers of the World Trade Center, the journalist Bill Moyers interviewed the then-minister of Riverside Church in New York, James Forbes. Moyers said to Forbes, “Did God make this happen?” And Forbes said, “I don’t believe that God makes everything happen. But I do believe that God can make something happen out of everything.”
In other words, God doesn’t go around making people fly airplanes into buildings and causing earthquakes for kicks. No, what God does is stand with those who suffer and embrace those who mourn. In the midst of the worst that life can do to us, God can and does birth a new hope and show us a startling and gorgeous vista. Out of the ashes and rubble God can provide beauty and hope. When Jesus is put to the test, he acknowledges that at the center of life is attention to this God, the God who can restore and nourish and tend at a core level. To rest our hearts and minds and souls in that God is to bask in the heart and meaning of life. It’s to know that deep peace.
That’s not all, though. Yes, trust in God is to be at the core of life. And it’s true we can’t solve every problem and that having a fulfilling life can’t be contingent on everything being arranged precisely to our liking. At the same time, though, the last thing we’d want to say about Christian faith is that we’re supposed to sit around and do nothing as we just sit in a kind of self-absorbed adoration. The very Jesus who declines to exert power in the temptation scene does indeed spend the remainder of his ministry making some sort of difference. He heals people. He feeds the 5000. And maybe most tellingly, at the very end of his ministry, just before he goes to the cross, the very last thing he leaves the people with is the instruction to tend to “the least of these”—to feed and house and clothe those who have little (Matthew 25:40). That sort of ministry, he says, is where the heart and purpose of life lie. That is where we experience the presence of the living Christ.
Last year, in the season of Lent, we reflected each week on the interplay of breathing in and breathing out as fundamental to a life of faith. We breathe in the love of God that holds us close. And we breathe out that very same love to those in our midst and beyond for whom that love can make all the difference. The temptation story reminds us that if our sense of fulfillment is entirely dependent on our eliminating all traces of hunger and violence and poverty and war and racism and pollution, we are bound to live in endless despair. We’re never going to achieve perfection on those fronts. Nor is God going to magically make that happen. So we turn to God to find our bearings, and bask in our joy, and celebrate the love that holds us close.
At the same time, though, if we despair of ever making a difference and give up even trying, we have missed the truth that the trying is crucial, irrespective of whether we ever achieve perfection. Continuing to try to reduce hunger and violence and poverty and war and racism and pollution is incredibly important. Each step we take on that road makes an enormous difference. It’s like the story of the little girl who walks the beach and throws every starfish she finds back into the ocean. Then a man comes along and asks her why she’s doing it. “You can’t possibly save every starfish, you know,” he says. “Yes,” the girl replies, “but I can save this one. And this one. And this one.”
Lent is a time for us to breathe in and breathe out. It’s a time for us to find our true bearings in the God who holds us close at every moment, to turn to God in the most daunting challenges, and to rest in the fullness of love even, and maybe especially, when grief and despair and frustration seem overwhelming. Not unlike Jesus in the story of his testing, there are times when we’re not to do, but simply to stop, and to remember that God is God, and we’re not. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God” (4:10). Because that’s where the deepest nourishment, the truest home, is found. Lent is an invitation to breathe in that love.
At the same time, Lent is an invitation to breathe out, and to let that love sing its peerless song in the midst of the strife and strain and brokenness of life. So we feed people who are hungry. We clothe people who are naked. We visit people who are lonely. We pursue gun reform. We seek to undo the pernicious effects of racism. We strive for justice for creation. If we have really taken in the love of God, we can’t not do these things. There are starfish that need to be thrown back into the sea. And because we know the love we have been shown, we’re the ones to do that throwing.
This Lent, and as we come now to our Annual Meeting, may we live in that saving and redemptive give and take. May we take in the transforming love of God. And may we live out our ministries with the grace of ones who know how crucial and life-giving is that love. What a magnificent life we’ve been given to live!